Jesus was well aware of the problems we have in differentiating between original and counterfeit. In the realm of faith the question becomes: who’s a believer and who’s just faking it? Being the master of simplicity Jesus boils down complex problems by cutting right through them and getting to the bottom of the issue. His approach: parables and life application stories as well as imagery and metaphors. To simplify the problem of correctly identifying people, Jesus is grouping them into two categories:
- Category I: Fruit-tree-people
- Category II: Thorn-bush-people
At first sight the difference is very apparent: a thorn bush does not bear fruit while a fruit tree does. In the 7th chapter of his gospel Matthew writes: “Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:15-16)”
To answer Jesus’ question: obviously no one can pick grapes from thorn bushes. But what if the fruit is not authentic? And I believe that’s what Paul was getting at in his letter to his Greek friends in Corinth. One can identify a lot of problems by just observing how people act, however it takes a closer look to see through their complexities. Paul was probably describing his old self, before Jesus changed him, when he portrayed this fantastic person who knew it all and had it all. He was talking about a person appearing to be fitting the fruit tree category nicely, with plenty of charitable deeds, wisdom and insight, well-versed, speaking several languages, successful, enjoying a great reputation, and who was willing to be martyred for his belief system. That’s Paul as we know him from the book of Acts: Paul was born in the city of Tarsus, a major city of his time and cultural melting pot. Paul probably grew up at least bilingual, speaking Greek and Hebrew fluently. He completed his education in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the most respected teachers of his time. Charitable deeds belonged to the code of conduct taught in the Torah, and Paul would have rather died than renounce the Torah. “So here is a tree with plenty of good fruit”, one would say, “Right?” – And Paul says: “Wrong! For all intents and purposes this fruit tree in all reality is a thorn bush.” – “But why?” one would ask. “What is so wrong about being brilliant and ready to die for one’s beliefs?” Well, here is a reality check, and it might come as a shock: brilliance and willingness to die for one’s belief system does not make one a saint!
So what is the real difference between sinner and saint? Looking at Paul’s example we find that a saint is not necessarily a self-sacrificing charitable person; and a sinner is not necessarily a lawbreaker charged with the death penalty as Jesus was. The defining feature of a sinner or a saint is the presence or the absence of love. Back to that fruit tree: have you ever encountered fake love? Then you would not be surprised if there is such a thing as fake fruit. So there are thorn bushes out there, dressed up like trees with some fake fruit on it. The good news is: if there is fake love, then the genuine original must be somewhere, and it is! There is such a thing as true love; and there is such a thing as genuine fruit coming from the Tree of Life. The original – you guessed it – is God. God is love; and the fruit of His love is found in His children coming from His Son who is the Tree of Life. Genuine unselfish love is not something we can produce out of hot air. Original love comes from God and changes us dramatically when we receive it. Instead of pretending to love we can live love. Love is real because God is real; love is authentic because God is authentic; and love is the greatest because God is the greatest!